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Full text of ""The powers that be." A sermon, preached in St. Paul's Church, Centerville, Queen Anne County, Maryland, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 2, A. D. 1862"

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The poioers that be are ordained of God. 

What say you ? it may be said ; is every ruler then elected by God ? 
This I do not say, he answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual 
rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and 
some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be earned 
on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that ; 
this, I say, is the work of God's wisdom. Hence he does not say,/or there is 
no ruler but of God; but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, there is no 
power but of God. And, the poivers that be are ordained of God. Thus 
when a certain wise man saith," It is by the Lord that a man is matched with 
a woman, he means this, God made marriage, and not that it is he that joineth 
together every man that cometh to be with a woman. For we see many that 
come to be with one another for evil, and not by the law of marriage, and 
this we should not ascribe luito God. 

St. Chrysostom, Homil. on Epis. to Romans, Oxford T)-ansl. 

Proverbt six. 14, Sept. Transl. 


Eomans siii. 1, 2. — Let every soul be subject unto the higher 
POWERS, For there is no power but of god: the powers that be 


Christianity has to do primarily with our relation to God, 
and secondarily, with our relations to one another and to 
society. The latter grow out of the former and are intimate- 
ly connected with it. Hence the words of my text, which 
would otherwise he out of place in an Apostolical Epistle ; 
and hence the Church's adoption of them in her systematic 
teaching. They come in course to-day. They do not come 
every year ; it is two years since they came last, and it will 
be three years hefore they will come again. There is reason 
therefore why we should give them ''the more earnest 
heed," lest hy any means "we should let them slip." Let 
us endeavor therefore to consider them soherly and dis- 
passionately, looking to the Father of lights to ''lighten 
our darkness," and praying the Spirit of truth to lead us 
into all truth, that following in the steps of our Blessed 
Master we may "render unto Ccesar the things that are 
Cesar's," no less than "unto God the things that are God's." 

I begin with an explanation of terms. The word "power," 
which, by the way, had better have been authority, (for 
that is what it means,) is here used, you will observe, 
four times; twice in the singular, and twice in the plural. 
There is a reason for this difference of number. "Every 
soul," that is, every individual citizen or subject, is required 
to be in subjection to the "higher powers," not, power, 
because there always are, in fact, more powers than one 
that have authority over him. Of course, in the "liigher 

powers," that is, the powers that are higher than himself, 
is included the highest or supreme power. So, too, it is 
the existing ''powers" that are ordained of God; not, the 
existing power. But when we come to the next sentence, 
it is, "power," not, powers: "Whosoever, therefore, re- 
sisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God;" because 
the higher powers are as really of His ordaining as the 
highest, and any one of them as really as each and every 
other.— All the powers, then, in the State are included in 
the phrase "higher powers." 

The next question is. What are we to understand by "the 
powers that he?" Ordinarily, there is no difficulty in 
determining this point, because, ordinarily, there are no 
competing powers. But the Apostle's direction applies to 
extraordinary cases as well as to ordinary : hence the 
difficulty. As a means toward arriving at a satisfactory 
conclusion, let us enquire first in what sense "the powers 
that be" are "ordained of God." 

That they are not ordained by Him now in the same 
sense that they were under the Jewish theocracy, that is to 
say, by a direct and immediate appointment of the indivi- 
dual rulers, is matter of fact. Neither are they ordained 
by Him in the sense of a direct and immediate determining 
of the number of authorities, their several natures and func- 
tions. The State differs in this respect from the Church. 
"God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondari- 
ly prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts 
of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues," 
(1 Cor. xii. 28,) some of them permanent, some of them 
temporary, but all of them tlie direct appointment of God. 
This is the Constitution, the "organic law," of the Church, 
unalterable except by Him who ordained it. Hence the 
Church refuses to recognize as (ecclesiastically) legitimate 
those communities that have thrown it ofl\ But in the 
State it is not so. It was not so in the Apostle's day. The 
powers that were^ at the time he wrote, were the Eoman 
powers, appointed theoretically by the people or the senate, 
practically by the Emperor, himself self-appointed. It 

never was so, except under tlie theocracy. From the 
earliest times, there have been different forms of civil 
government, kingdoms, empires, republics, democratic 
commonwealths, each recognized by every other as a valid,, 
if not desirable, constitution of the State, a legitimate 
civil community. 

"The powers that be," then, not being "ordained of 
God" in the sense of a direct and immediate designation of 
the offices to be filled and the persons to fill them, in what 
sense are they ordained by Him? There is but one other 
conceivable sense, namely, that civil government is an ap- 
pointment of God; that is to say, that it is His appointment 
that there shall be governments, and that, as there cannot 
be governments without governors, it is His appointment 
that there shall be governors also. This is undoubtedly 
the Apostle's meaning in the assertion we are considering, 
and it lets us into the meaning of the whole passage. 

The right of some to govern — the right, I mean, for the 
time being — implies the duty of others to be governed, or, 
as the Apostle expresses it, to be in subjection: "Let every 
soul be subject to the higher powers;" the right and the 
duty are correlative and coextensive. But more of this anon. 

To recur to the question, Who are "the powers that be?" 
As I have before remarked, there can be no difficulty in 
answering this question, where there are no competing pow- 
ers. But where there are competing powers, which are 
"the powers that be?" There are two cases of this problem, 
depending on whether the competition be an active, or a 
passive one. If it be a, passive one, that is to say, if powers 
claiming to "be," are not in possession, and content them- 
selves with merely protesting against the title of those that 
are in possession, then plainly, these latter are "the powers 
that be;" otherwise, there would be really no power for the 
individual to be subject to, and, consequently, he would be 
subject to none, and so God's ordinance of civil government 
would be defeated of all practical efiect. 

This is not merely a supposed case ; it is the actual case 
of the French people at this moment, save that with them 

there are two competing powers, each refusing to recognize 
the pretensions of the other, and both protesting passively 
against the title of the powers in actual possession. Surely, 
there can be no doubt to which of these powers every indi- 
vidual inhabitant of France is to "be subject;" if he is not 
subject to the powers in actual possession, plainly he can be 
subject to none. 

But suj)pose the case of an active competition, that is to 
say, of a claim set up, and of an army in the field to assert 
it, which then are the powers that be? In other words, to 
which of the contending powers is the individual to be sub- 
ject? Manifestly, as before, to those in actual possession; 
and for the same reason, namely, that if he is not subject to 
them he can be subject to none, and so God's ordinance of 
civil government is practically annulled. 

These are the only supposable cases, and they admit, as we 
have seen, of but one answer. There can be no difficulty, 
then, in determining in any given instance which are "the 
powers that be?" The simple test is, actual possession of the 
machinery of government ; for, without the machinery, gov- 
ernment cannot act upon the individual, and the individual, 
therefore, cannot "be subject" to it. 

I think you will, by this time, begin to suspect that the 
word "subject," in the Apostle's use of it, has not so wide 
a signification as is sometimes attributed to it ; and you will 
be right in your suspicion. Being "subject to the higher 
powers" does not involve doing whatever they may command; 
for they may command you to "pervert judgment and 
justice," and then, if you do it, "He that is higher than the 
highest regardeth ; and there be higher than they." (Eccl. v. 
8.) Doing is action, and tliere is a limit to active obedience 
to the "higher powers;" unlimited active obedience is to be 
yielded to God only. 

If now I should say that unlimited passive obedience is 
due to "the powers that be," you would probably demur 
to it, because you would misapprehend my meaning. The 
phrase "passive obedience" is a theological one, and is as 
generally misunderstood by laymen as the legal phrase 

"benefit of clergy."* Passive obedience does not mean doing 
whatever is commanded; that is active obedience, for doing 
is action. Passive obedience is simply non-resistance. The 
Quaker exemplifies it, when, refusing to do military duty, 
or even to pay the fine for non-performance of it, he suffers 
his goods to be distrained and sold at a heavy sacrifice to 
satisfy the law. The Confessor exemplifies it, when, refusing 
to betray the secrets of the confessional on the witness stand, 
he submits to whatever penalty the Court may inflict upon 
him. Whether their scruples are well grounded is apart 
from my purpose: I do not cite them for their scruples, but 
for their patient taking of the consequences. 

After this, a definition of passive obedience is, perhaps, 
hardly needed. Still, it may not be altogether superfluous 
to give one. 

"Passive obedience" is unresisting submission to wrong, 
real or supposed, at the hands of authority. Now such sub- 
mission is the duty of the individual, as such, when there is 
no legal and peaceable way of resistance. I say, of the 
individual, as such: I am not speaking of him now as a con- 
stituent member of the State ; I shall come to that by and 
by. I repeat, passive obedience is the duty of the indivi- 
dual, as such, when there is no legal and peaceable way of 
resistance. This is the plain teaching of Christianity. "Put 
them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to 
obey magistrates." "They that take the sword," that is, as 
the connection shows, they that in their private and indivi- 
dual capacity take the sword against the civil magistrate, 
"shall perish with the sword." "Submit yourselves to 
every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake." It is the 
teaching of reason also ; for if every man is to be judge in 
his own case, there can be no such thing as a civil commu- 

* I had hardly written the above, when I met, in the daily papers, with the 
following confirmation of it, in the Report of a Committee of Congress on the 
examination of Lieut. Col. Maynadier in regard to his execution of Mr. Secretary 
Floyd's order for the distribution of arms : "He says that 'his duty was obedience, 
not questioning.' This, as a general rule, is correct; but in the case of palpable 
treason on the part of a high ofiScer, passive obedience in the inferior ceases to be a 
dutv and becomes a crime." The italics are mine. 


nity; and if every man is not to "be judge in his own case, the 
individual, human nature being what it is, must sometimes 
suffer wrong at the hands of society, and if he suffer must 
submit unresistingly. 

Call not such submission slavish and degrading ! Is dig- 
nity to be found only in resistance? Is there no dignity in 
suffering? Shades of the "noble army of martyrs" and 
confessors, of all that have ever suffered joyfully for the 
right and the true, forbid it ! Infidelity calls submission 
degrading. Infidelity has no martyrs. The Church teaches 
submission. The martyrs of the Church are a vast multi- 
tude whom no man can number, gathered out of every kin- 
dred and tongue and people. "^ These are they which came 
out of great tribulation." These " had trial of cruel mock- 
ings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprison- 
ment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were 
tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about 
in sheepskins and goatskins ; being destitute, afflicted, 
tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy,) they 
wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and 
caves of the earth." (Heb. xi. 36 — 38.) 

Chief of the noble band, foremost among those who thus 

" climbed the dizzy steep of heaven 

Through peril, toil and pain," 

stands the great Apostle the meaning of whose words we 
are seeking to ascertain. Let his life be their best expounder. 
A living martyrdom was his, such as no other, probably, 
ever went through, save Him who was more than man. 
Listen to the solemn music of his words: "Five times 
received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with 
rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night 
and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in 
perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own 
countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, 
in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils 
among false brethren ; in Aveariness and painfiilness, in 
watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in 
cold and nakedness." (2 Cor. xi. 24—27.) 

Such is the record. Would you have had it otherwise? 
Would you the Apostle had met taunt with taunt, and 
blow with blow? Would his memory then have been 
handed down along the ages with the halo that encircles it 
now ? Ah ! brethren^ there is a power in passive endurance 
that the world little dreams of. 

"Nobly borne is nobly done." 

Still, martyrdom is not to be courted : on the contrary, it 
is to be avoided in every possible way consistent with duty. 
" When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another," 
was our Lord's direction to his disciples, and it applies to us 
in its spirit, if not in the letter. If you cannot flee, or if 
duty to others will not permit you to flee, remain and take 
the consequences. If they attempt to deprive you of your 
rights as citizens, stand only the more firmly upon them. 
Assert them in every possible legal way. It is a duty you 
owe not merely to yourselves, but to society and to posterity. 
Asserting them is not "resisting the ordinance of God." 
The Apostle's conduct is the best commentary on his words. 
On the occasion of his preaching the gospel at Iconium 
along with Barnabas, there being " an assault made both of 
the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use 
them despitefully, and to stone them, they were ware of it, 
and fled unto Lystra and Derbe," and " there they preached 
the gospel." (Acts xiv. 5, 6, 7.) On another occasion, 
when the Apostle had been seized and brought before the 
'' higher powers, " and therefore could not flee, he claimed 
his privilege of citizenship. "As they bound him with 
thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it 
lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncon- 
demned ? " What was the consequence ? Why, that when 
the chief captain, who was at first doubtful, became satisfied 
of the fact, and that at the bare word of the Apostle, 
" straightway they departed from him which should have 
examined him : and the chief captain also was afraid, after 
he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound 
him." (Acts xxii. 25, 29.) Verily there were some prac- 


tical rights under that " despotic " government which we 
are told St. Paul commanded the Roman converts to he sub- 
ject to. On another occasion, the Apostle went still further. 
His "companion in travel" and ''fellow-laborer," Silas, 
and himself, had been " beaten with many stripes" by com- 
mand of the magistrates of Philippi, and delivered to the 
jailor with the charge to "keep them safely: who, having 
received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, 
and made their feet fast in the stocks." At midnight, a 
great earthquake opened the prison doors, and loosed the 
prisoners' bands : but they disdained to leave the prison in 
any underhand manner. "And when it was day, the ma- 
gistrates sent the sergeants, saying, Let those men go. And 
the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul : The ma- 
gistrates have sent to let you go : now therefore depart, and 
go in peace. But Paul said unto them. They have beaten 
us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us 
into prison ; and now do they thrust us out privily ? nay 
verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. And 
the sergeants told these words unto the magistrates : and 
they feared, when they heargl that they were Romans. And 
they came and besought them, and brought them out, and 
desired them to depart out of the city. And they went out 
of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia : and when 
they had seen the brethren," — not before, — "when they 
had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed." 
(Acts xvi. 22—40.) 

Such is the Apostle's example, and it is a safe one to fol- 
low. "All these things happened unto them for ensamples : 
and they are written for our admonition." (1 Cor. x. 11.) 
" Brethren," says the same Apostle, " be followers together 
of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an 
ensample." (Phil. iii. 17.) The Apostle's example, then, 
is intended to hcfolloived. In like circumstances, we are to 
do as he did. That is the lesson here taught. Brethren, act 
upon it. If ever you are wrongfully taken to prison, go 
unresistingly. If, afterward, they *■' send to let you go," 
bid them "come themselves and fetch vou out." If that 


happen to you which did not happen to the Apostle, then 
follow the general analogy of his conduct, or if there be 
specific precepts elsewhere in Holy Scripture, follow tliem. 
If a yoke is attempted to be put upon your neck, ''which 
neither your fathers nor you were able to bear," (Acts xv. 
10,) the yoke of silence where free speech, the manly utter- 
ance of honest conviction, hath been heretofore accustomed, 
shake it off; it is a duty you owe to posterity. If an oath 
unknown to the Constitution is exacted of you, refuse to 
take it ; it can serve only for a snare to your conscience. 
Keep clear of that "vain and rash swearing," which the 
Church says, in her Thirty-ninth Article, "is forbidden 
Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his 
Apostle." Extra-constitutional, like extra-judicial, oaths 
are not merely outside the Constitution, they are against the 
Law of God. In brief, if anything is required of you on 
the ground that it is for a right end, see that it be itself 
right. Give no countenance, by word or deed, to the doc- 
trine, so popular of late, that the end justifies the means : it 
is a " doctrine of devils." God preserve our land from the 
blight it is bringing on it ! 

What I have said thus far, respects the individual in his 
individual capacity. What I have now to say, respects him 
in his capacity of constituent member of the state. 

In a constitutional government — and nearly all civilized 
governments are constitutional, whether the constitution be 
a written instrument^ or a body of traditional customs which 
the ruler violates at his peril — in a constitutional govern- 
ment, the Constitution is the Supreme Power ; but then as 
the Constitution cannot carry on and carry out itself, there 
must be subordinate powers to carry it on and carry it out. 
In a government like that we live under — for that is the 
hind of constitutional government I am now speaking of, 
and I wish it distinctly understood, that I am dealing with 
'principles — in a government like that we live under, these 
powers are parcelled out among three co-ordinate depart- 
ments, the legislative^ the executive, and tlie judicial ; 
theoretically co-ordinate, for practically one of them is 


superordinate (if I may coin fhe word) and the other two are 
subordinate. The superordinate department is not the legis- 
lative, still less the executive ; it is the judicial. The execu- 
tive officers of a constitutional government of the kind we 
are considering, are virtually ministerial officers of the 
Courts, for the Courts have power to pass upon their acts, 
and even to compel them by mandamus, or restrain them by 
injunction. Even the " Chief Executive " is in this respect, 
in his relation to the people at large, no more than his sub- 
ordinates, save in the possession of the pardoning power, 
which is a power on the side of mercy, not of oppression. 
Suppose now the Chief Executive of a constitutional govern- 
ment, sustained, if you will, by a subservient majority in 
the legislative department, which, be it observed, does not 
necessarily sup|)ose a majority of the people, should under- 
take to set aside the Constitution as expounded by the 
Courts, and to govern "after the counsel of his own will," — 
a prerogative of God only, — have the people, ever, in such a 
case, or have they not, the right, not in their several indi- 
vidual capacities, but in their capacity of constituent mem- 
bers of the state, to restrain such exorbitancy, even to the 
extent, if it cannot be done in any other way, of deposing 
such Executive and putting another in his place? To say 
that they have not, is to say that if he should take it into 
his head to have a "grand custom," after the example of 
the Chief Executive of Dahomey, there is no help for it but 
in the Providence of God, or in the sin of man. I am aware 
that the case is an extreme one, but an extreme case is the 
proper test of a universal negative ; for if there is a single 
exception, the whole ground is shifted, and the question be- 
comes one, not of the right of revolution, but of how much 
will justify a resort to it. It will not do to say that the 
Word of God forbids revolution : that would be to ignore 
the distinction between public and private acts, a distinction 
clearly recognized in Holy Scripture. In the very verse but 
one preceding my text, we read, "If thine enemy hunger, 
feed him; if he thirst, give him drink." If on the strength 
of this injunction you were to send a ship-load of provisions 


to Charleston, I think you would hardly get clear of the 
penalty even before a court of non-jurors. To deny entirely 
the right of revolution, is to forget that the state, like the 
sabbath, was made for man, not man for the state; it is to 
sacrifice the many to the few, the people to the powers that 
be, the end to the means, which is simply preposterous. 

Of course, the right of revolution is an extreme right ; 
the resort to it is a legitimate resort, only when it is a last 
resort. Not only "prudence," but the law of God, "will 
dictate that governments long established should not be 
changed for light and transient causes;" and even when 
that law will sanction the change, it will not sanction any 
and every means of bringing it about, "Sedition, privy 
conspiracy, and rebellion," we pray to be delivered from; 
and that, not asexternal evils, like "lightning and tempest," 
"plague, pestilence, and famine," "battle and murder," and 
" sudden death;" but as internal evils, ranging themselves 
under the same category with "false doctrine, heresy, and 
schism," with "hardness of heart, and contempt of God's 
Word and Commandment ;" that is to say, as siiis. That 
they are sins, and very aggravated ones, too, no Christian 
can doubt. Sedition is expressly declared by St. Paul to be 
one of the " works of the flesh," and it was because of the 
seditious tendencies of the Cretians and especially those of 
them who were Jews that he gave to Titus the injunction, 
"Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, 
to obey magistrates." Privy conspiracy is not only a sin, 
but a very cowardly one, ranking on a par with the assassi- 
nation to which it tends and often leads. I cannot now re- 
call a single instance in which, even though successful in its 
immediate object, it has ever accomplished its ultimate end ; 
so evidently does the Providence of God seem to have put 
its special mark of reprobation upon it. Catilinarian conspi 
racies, gunpowder treasons, rye-house plots, are crimes 
against civil society, and, as such, have met, as they liave 
' deserved to meet, the execration of all right-thinking 
persons. The same has been the ftite of the conspiracy of 
Brutus and Cassius ; even the acknowledged purity of 


motive of the conspirators could not shield it. As for re- 
bellion, the prophet has declared that it is "as the sin of 
witchcraft," and that the law of God punished with death. 

But revolution is not necessarily rebellion. The revolu- 
tion of 1789, the revolution, I mean^ (for such it was, and 
such it was declared to be by a distinguished orator in one 
of our large cities last summer,) by which the Federal Con- 
stitution was adopted with the consent of eleven States only, 
though the then existing Constitution expressly required 
the consent of the whole thirteen, was not a rebellion, and 
nobody ever thought of calling it one. True it was a peace- 
ful revolution, but it was not its peacefulness that kept it 
from being a rebellion. Suppose the Constitution had been 
adopted, as it might have been, by the nine smallest States 
of the Confederacy^ and suppose the consequence had been 
a bloody war between them and the other four, that would 
not have made the act a rebellion : it would not have altered 
its character in the slightest degree. The character of an 
act already done cannot be affected by any supervening con- 

But "rebellion" in the Litany, we are told, means revolu- 
tion. I deny it. And, to sustain myself in the denial, I 
will not even ask that the language be "allowed," to use 
the words of the Church of England, as quoted in the 
preface to our own Prayer Book, "such just and favorable 
construction as in common equity ought to be allowed to all 
human writings." I will simply make the action, the 
deliberate action, of the Church of England herself a com- 
mentary on her words: it is tlie very best kind of com- 

In the very same suffrage of the Litany in which we pray 
to be delivered "from all sedition, privy conspiracy, and 
rebellion," we pray also to be delivered "from all false 
doctrine, heresy, and schism." Now what rebellion is, in 
the State^ that, schism is, in the Church. If, then, shaking 
off usurped authority in the State is, of itself, rebellion_, sliak- 
ing off usurped authority in the Church is schism, and the 
Chiircli of England, in sliaking off the usurped authority of 


the Pope, and retaining in her Litany tlie petition to be 
delivered from schism, has stultified herself. It matters 
not to the argument, that the authority of the Pope over 
the Church of England, was wholly usurped, and that of 
the king of Great Britain, for instance, over the Colonies, 
only in part; for if the usurped authority could not he 
thrown off without throwing off the legitimate with it, then 
the legitimate was fairly forfeited, and so ceased to he 

From what has heen said, it follows clearly that a revolu- 
tion can he rightfully brought about in but one or other of 
two ways, either by organized communities acting in their 
organic capacity, openly and above-board, for the security 
of their Constitutional rights, as was the case with our 
fathers a hundred years ago, or, by the spontaneous upris- 
ing of a whole people to shake off intolerable oppression. 

I have thus endeavored to ascertain the meaning of the 
text — what it does teach, what it does not. How far I have 
succeeded, is known only to Him who has "caused all holy 
Scriptures to be written for our learning." We are fallible: 
He only is infallible. 

After all^ the important thing is, the practical lesson as 
respects our duty in the circumstances in w^hich we are 
placed. Plainly it is that of the Apostle under the Pioman 
government eighteen hundred years ago: passive obedience 
to ''the powers that be," in all things; active obedience, 
only so far as is consistent with our duty to a Higher Power. 
''We ought to obev Grod rather than man." 

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